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Supreme Court should narrow scope of state education ruling

One got the sense listening to the questions posed by state Supreme Court justices on Thursday that they realize they have created quite the constitutional conundrum by allowing the courts to get involved in the question of how the state should provide for the education of its children.

In 2005 (only glaciers move slower than Connecticut courts) a group of big cities, struggling small towns, labor groups and educational activists filed a lawsuit against then Gov. M. Jodi Rell contending state government was not adhering to the Connecticut Constitution.

The constitution states: “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The General Assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.”

As was the case in 2005 and remains so today, Connecticut does provide a free public education, using a mix of state money raised through the income, sales and other state taxes, local funds raised through property taxation, and federal aid. As of 2015, Connecticut was spending $16,631 per pupil for that education, fifth highest among the states.

But, contended the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, large class-room sizes, a lack of materials and dismal student performance in many poorer communities were proof that the state was not providing adequate resources and so not meeting its constitutional obligation.

The Supreme Court should not have allowed this case to proceed. In 2007 a Superior Court judge correctly dismissed the lawsuit, noting that Connecticut was meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a free education and that how to fund and direct that education is the job of the legislature, not the courts.

Instead of affirming that ruling, however, the Supreme Court in 2010 reversed it in a 4-3 decision, the majority concluding that the constitutional language implied an “adequate” free education for all.

In trying to determine adequate, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher presided over a trial that stretched more than six months, with 50 witnesses and 826 exhibits. It ended with him issuing a 254-page decision a year ago.

No one liked it. Moukawsher determined Connecticut was spending “more than the bare minimum” and so was meeting its obligation to provide a free education.

But, the judge continued, the legislature has acted unconstitutionally because the public education system, while free, is irrationally designed and funded and unconnected to the goal of meeting educational needs. Schools in wealthy communities with political pull get aid while poorer communities in need are left begging.

Moukawsher also found plenty of other things wrong with public education in Connecticut.

His decision demands that the General Assembly has to come up with a funding plan for education that is rational, as opposed to political. It must revamp teacher evaluations so that they identify deficiencies. It must set clear standards for awarding high school diplomas. And it must place greater controls on special education spending and provide greater discretion when allotting funds for school building projects.

Under his decision, Moukawsher would have to sign off on the legislature’s decisions on these points.

The coalition that brought the case appealed saying they never asked the judge to weigh in on the adequacy of teacher evaluations or standards for high school diplomas, they just wanted to make sure school systems had adequate resources. Attorney General George Jepsen again appealed on the basis that the court overstepped its authority.

Indeed it did. While Moukawsher’s identification of the problems is largely on target, his decision is a case of extreme judicial overreach. If the Supreme Court affirms the decision, it will have provided an unelected judge with the authority to demand that the legislature redesign public education in the state to his liking.

By their questions, some of the justices showed they were wary about getting the courts so involved in matters of a legislative nature and placing judges in the role of deciding when education is adequately fixed.

The court should affirm Moukawsher’s finding that Connecticut does spend “more than the bare minimum” on education and his order that the legislature develop a rational formula to assure that the money is allocated in a manner that provides all with an opportunity for an adequate free education.

It should dismiss his other requirements as going beyond the scope of the courts.

Connecticut’s educational system has serious problems. The gap between student performance in poor urban centers and wealthier suburbs remains vast. Firm graduation standards are necessary.

But solutions must come through the hard work of the political and legislative process, not via judicial fiat.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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